Choosing a Genre

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: May 22 2007

Last Wednesday I did a post on the Encyclopedia of Sub-Genres and heard from a lot of you who disagreed with my definitions which I think proves a very, very good point. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Decisions on how a book is categorized or marketed is made by the publisher. It is a marketing decision and what one publisher would call erotic romance another calls erotica. I’ve sold erotic romance that the publisher marketed as paranormal romance and I’ve sold mystery that the publisher decided to call romance. Why? They felt they could better sell the book by marketing in those ways.

There are no exact guidelines to defining sub-genres. There’s no publishing handbook that tells you what these are. They are all fluid and based on how each individual publisher operates and what the market demands. Just two short years ago authors writing fantasy with romance were shelved only in fantasy. Paranormal romances were primarily vampires and other beasts. Now things have changed and we see much less of a distinction between some fantasy and romance. Now it’s really a matter of whether your book is more fantasy or more romance, or who it would appeal to the most.

So why would I bother with the encyclopedia in the first place? To give you a better understanding of what people might be talking about when they use these terms. When I get a “cozy mystery” that features a gory serial killer I know the writer doesn’t know the market and it immediately places doubts about whether she’s ready to be published. Using these guidelines you should better be able to understand where your book might fit, but ultimately it’s up to your agent and publisher to decide exactly who the market is and how to make your book the most successful it can be.

I know that doesn’t help the many of you who are unsure of what to call your book. What do you do then? My advice. Seek out those books that you feel would most appeal to your audience. Will readers of Jennifer Weiner or Elizabeth Berg most likely gravitate toward your book? Are you appealing more to the Christine Feehan audience or Laurell K. Hamilton before she crossed over to the romance market? Where are those books published? That’s how you can define your sub-genre.

The reason for a sub-genre is so the readers (and that includes editors and agents) can more easily find your book in the bookstore and the bookstores know where to put it. So when thinking about how to categorize your book think about where it would best fit. If it doesn’t fit anywhere you might have a problem. If you don’t know where your book should sell how do you think the bookstores are going to feel and how do you think readers will find it?

Sub-genres are a tricky business and all of these definitions could change tomorrow.

9 responses to “Choosing a Genre”

  1. Avatar Mark Terry says:

    I had this hit home when I was talking to a very successful writer of what I guess you would call horror or dark suspense. He’d changed agents lately and he’d commented that one of the things his agent had been interested in was his current shift from supernatural to paranormal. I have to admit, particularly as a writer of so-called “realistic” action-thrillers (or political thrillers or action-adventure or…) that I’m hard-pressed to figure out what the difference is. But in somebody’s mind there is one.

  2. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    Even the publishers don’t know what to call the various genres. My first contract for my Wolf Tales series was for “erotica.” The second contract was for “erotic romance.” Sub-genres are an ever-evolving part of this business. It all goes back to that old line all of us have heard from an editor at one time or another: Write your own book. Of course, when writers DO write their own books and catch an editor or agent’s attention, it’s probably because they’ve done something unique, which often requires blending genres…and once again confusing everyone! I DO love this business!

  3. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I should have mentioned in my comment that, while my contracts are for two totally different sub-genres, the stories are still the same!

  4. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Thank you so much!

    Some of my stories’ sub-genres are clear from the moment they pop into my head, but some remain difficult to define until the end. This is another aspect of the business I’ll be more than happy to hand over to an agent and/or editor.

  5. And then there are the times you plan to write one kind of story, and the characters keep insisting on another…

  6. Avatar Linda Adams says:

    Even the way the publisher markets the book doesn’t affect where the book might land in the bookstore or the library. In my Borders, all thrillers end up in the mystery section, regardless of whether it’s a crime novel or an adventure novel. But in my B&N, the non-crime thrillers end up in general fiction. At the library, I’ve seen several series authors wind up with books in the general fiction and detective fiction–and all the same thriller series.

    It was greatly confusing to me when I started writing my first book because I could never quite figure out where it fit. It had a crime in it, so it seemed like mystery, only when I read mystery books, it didn’t feel like a mystery. I read books on how to write mysteries, and again, my story just didn’t seem to fit. It was thriller, but it was so hard to tell where it might fit because similar books always seemed to be shelved in different places.

    But if I were trying to figure out where I fit now, I think I would even be more confused. Reading lots and lots and lots of thrillers was the only way I was ever able to begin to sort it out. Otherwise, I’d probably be sending out my action-adventure as mystery or mainstream fiction because that’s how it looks in my bookstore.

  7. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Oh, I hear ya, Laura. Characters can be so pushy sometimes!

  8. Avatar JDuncan says:

    This gets even trickier when you are doing something that is cross genres. How do you market something that has sci fi elements but is set primarily in medieval Wales? I’m still not sure what to classify my story as, but scifi-historical just sounds a little off.

  9. Avatar Kimber An says:

    jduncan, I’d think Paranormal Historical. I’ve got something similar set during the Battle of Britain (WWII.) Of course, I’ve been warned Historicals set after the turn of the 20th century don’t usually get bought. But, the Muse can be tough to argue with, yanno. She’s a stubborn old hag.